Hello! In this post, I'd like to start talking about flexibility and some things that have helped me. Since this is a very large topic to talk about and I've been working on flexibility a lot recently, you can expect to see more posts like this. I do want to get a little into what is happening in the body when we stretch...I find that interesting, and then give a little info on how I started my flexibility routine, so let's get right into it!
When we stretch, once our muscle fibers are stretched to their maximum length, connective tissue around the muscle takes up the slack and helps out. This process can actually help heal scar tissue in muscles. We also know stretching causes that signature intense sensation in our muscles, but ever wondered what causes that? Little receptors all in our muscles record how fast and how long the muscle is stretching and send this info to the spinal cord. At a certain point, your muscle is like "ok that's enough!!!" and your muscles tense up, keeping you from going further (that's called the stretch reflex). Those little receptors are why it's important to start off a stretching session slowly and to hold a stretch for more than just a few seconds. The slower you ease into a stretch, you almost kind of fool the receptors (kind of like that metaphor for boiling a frog by slowly turning up the heat of the water...it doesn't notice it happening) and decrease that resistance. Holding the stretch also decreases that reflex over time. Decreasing the stretch reflex is how some people can drop into a split like it's nothing. I don't want to bore people with a bunch of dry info, just wanted to give a few pieces of info :P
So before you even start a flexibility routine, it's important to set goals. Even if it's just one or two small things. Maybe you have a certain thing in mind (front split, middle split, maybe you just want to be able to comfortably place you hands flat on the floor) or your goal could be something more broad like sticking to a routine and seeing the various benefits. Also look at the time you have to set aside and think about how much time you want to dedicate to stretching. It doesn't have to be some super strict time schedule or for an extremely long amount of time, but you do need to practice frequently and I'd say at least have 30 minutes to dedicate to stretching (that 30 minutes is not including a warm up). Some days I stretch an hour or more and feel like I make a lot of great progress. Some days I'm extremely tired mentally and physically and I might do 30 minutes of light stretching just so I don't lose any progress. For me, a good length of time is about 50 minutes. When I first started stretching, I'd do a lot of intense stretching for a solid hour about 5 times a week and had some soreness for that first 10 days or so. Now I find if I take a rest day between sessions, I make more progress. Just goes to show how important rest is!
Ok so you've set your goals and know how much time you have in your day to set aside, so we're ready to stretch! Right? Well, almost...these next things are optional, but I think will make the whole process easier and also make it easier to see results and motivate you to continue! If you're anything like me, when you start any journey, you may feel hesitant to take before pictures/videos. You may feel embarrassed to even see the current state of your split, back bend, forward fold, etc but trust me, you will want those before pictures one day! My first progress photo I took actually is not the very first day I started stretching (I wish I had done that), but it is so satisfying now to look back and see my progress.
Another thing that is optional (I suppose it's optional, but really makes things much easier at first) is props! By props I mean things like yoga blocks, a yoga strap, and foam roller. The blocks are especially helpful in splits when you can't get your crotch to the ground yet and a quick search on YouTube can show tons of things to do with a strap. These are the props I use frequently (I also want to get a yoga wheel and start playing around with it). The foam roller is something I use mainly after I stretch to roll out my muscles , but have seen some people use it in warm ups. I mainly like to roll out my hamstrings, butt, and inner thighs. I found the cheapest price on Amazon for the yoga blocks and the other two things probably would be cheaper online, but I got mine in store for cheap. I would definitely recommend investing a little money in these few things to start off with.
So now we're all ready to stretch and here are some important things to remember:
1. Always warm up!- Never stretch cold muscles! Not only will you not be able to stretch as much as you would warm, but you can hurt yourself. I like to do a few minutes of brisk walking, leg swings, squats, and arm circles to get my blood flowing. I spend about 10 minutes on this
2. Ease into your first stretches- remember how I mentioned earlier that the slower you ease into a stretch, you can almost fool those receptors that tell your muscles to contract? That's why it's important to start slow and as you get warmer and warmer, you can get into some deeper stretches. I always save my most intense stretches for the end of a session.
3. Grab a drink and relax!- This one may sound strange, but a glass of wine (or two!) can really help relax you more and ease into your stretches. I usually will have a couple of alcoholic drinks on a weekend night that I'm stretching. It helps me relax more and feels like a nice treat while I'm stretching. For during the week, I have some hot lavender honey tea for the same purpose.
This was a bit of a long post, but I wanted to do something like this just to give some general info before going into more specific things about flexibility in future. Any questions or requests for future posts are always welcome. Happy stretching! :)